The Best Israeli Wines to Toast to a Sweet 5774

It’s quite easy to draw up lists of recommended wines for Rosh Hashanah when it comes to value for money. The same wineries continue to dominate the market.

Daniel Bar-On

The major event this year in Israel’s wine industry was the sale in February of the Carmel Winery to an investment group from Israel, the United States, Britain and France. While the deal was covered in the press in the usual financial terms, it wouldn’t have been out of place to describe it as a milestone in Zionist history. The first modern business enterprise in Eretz Israel, set up 124 years ago by Baron Edmond de Rothschild for the Jewish settlers in Rishon Letzion and Zichron Yaakov, had finally been let go by the vintners’ cooperative that ‏(mis‏)managed it from the outset.

While this is not the first large Israeli winery to be run by business people who probably didn’t buy it for a hobby, Carmel with its size and unrealized potential can dictate the market. The winery already underwent a revolution during the last decade or so, breaking through to the quality market that had been dominated almost exclusively by Golan Heights, but the vintners couldn’t translate that into healthy profits. The main question is how the new managers − who for the first time since the baron’s day have real financial backing, enabling them to enlarge production and export − will try to make a profit.

Most of Carmel’s premium wines are significantly cheaper than the large majority of comparable local vintages. The people at Carmel could now take advantage of their production capacity, widen their portfolio and even lower their prices further to bring the entire industry out of its sticker frenzy and back to a sober level of pricing. Hundreds of local wines are sold at over NIS 100 per bottle and dozens above NIS 200; a small minority justifies this and certainly cannot compare to wines being sold for those prices in Europe or the United States. Which is a pity, because Israeli wines continue to improve, only not at the same rate as the prices are rising.

It’s easy to draw up a list of new recommended wines for Rosh Hashanah. If quality were the only criterion, it would be much more difficult, but the moment you apply the value-for-money standard, most fall by the way. The following two lists of 12 wines each − one for easy drinking, for under NIS 100 per bottle, and the second, which is for the most part slightly fancier, almost draw themselves up.

Five wineries have a major presence on both lists, occupying more than half the spots. It would have been nicer to offer a wider variety, but while dozens of new wineries open each year, most of the small and medium-sized producers fail to maintain consistency throughout successive vintages, and thus a pleasant surprise quickly becomes a thudding disappointment with the next one. Such lists could contain more special, undiscovered gems from tiny wineries, but recommending a wine that is available for only a few weeks in two shops and one restaurant in Tel Aviv is of little use. So the lists become a bit boring, because the only truly consistent winery is Golan Heights, over the 30 years of its existence − and Carmel, more recently.

The two main producers in the Upper Galilee, Dalton and Galil Mountain, are also well represented below, simply because they continue to respect the financial capabilities of the Israeli drinker and deliver VFM each year. Joining them this year is Recanati, an often over-hyped winery in the past, which has succeeded over the past few years not only in greatly improving its wines but has also kept its prices down. The entire list could have easily been made from the offerings of these five wineries, and the fact that they have just 13 representatives below is something of a disservice to them.

Rosh Hashanah falls early this year, still at the height of summer, and summer’s wine is first of all chilly rose. Many local wineries continued the blessed trend this year of taking the pink wine seriously, and the surprise in that category is Flam Rose. I never believed I would recommend an Israeli pink that sells for NIS 80, relatively steep for a local rose. Yet another milestone in Zionist history.

The easy-drinking list

Galil Mountain, Rose 2012: A light and refreshing pink with charming strawberry flavors and floral aromas. Blended from two Italian grapes ‏(Sangiovese and Barbera‏) and two French varieties ‏(Pinot Noir and Grenache‏), which come together to create an ultimate Israeli cooler. NIS 40

Carmel, Regional Series, Upper Galilee, Sauvignon Blanc 2012: A grassy and light white with zesty citrus favors, which succeeds where so many Israeli whites fail, by not being too sharp or acidic. NIS 45

Dalton, Chardonnay 2012: In the wilderness of cheap and inferior Israeli Chardonnay, Dalton offers a buttery and light wine with pleasant notes of thyme and citrus. NIS 50

Galil Mountain, Merlot 2012: This is a supermarket wine that you can usually find in the 3-for-NIS 100 deals, but it competes with some of the local Merlot sold for double or even triple the price. A classic Galilee Merlot, chock-full of red fruit and herbal aromas. Not over-complex, and totally satisfying. NIS 40

Tabor, Adama, Terra Rossa Cabernet Sauvignon 2010: This rather commercial and usually disappointing winery has produced a pleasant basic Cabernet with all the necessary qualities for everyday drinking. Should be served slightly chilled. NIS 45

Pelter Trio 2011: One of this year’s surprises. A Bordeaux-style blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc with deep earthy flavors and a spicy aroma, combined into a totally satisfying wine at a very sober price. NIS 69

Golan Heights, Gamla Shmura, Cabernet-Merlot 2011: The new sub-series of Golan Heights, Shmura ‏(nature reserve‏), proves that the leading winery in Israel hasn’t lost its sense of innovation. This blend of the two main red varieties is well-balanced and pleasantly fills the mouth without any heaviness. NIS 70

Galil Mountain, Alon 2011: It’s no coincidence that this is the winery’s third representative on the list; there are so few Israelis wines like this. A very accessible blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc, which literally spoils us with lavish fruit. NIS 70

Dalton Alma 2010: In the past, the best Bordeaux-style wine at a reasonable price in Israel was Galil Mountain’s Yiron, but success went to their heads, and it is now retailing for NIS 120. Neighboring Dalton is now offering its excellent Alma with loads of black fruit and tobacco. NIS 80

Golan Heights, Yarden Pinot Noir 2009: Nearly every year, this is one of the best wines Golan offers, but it rarely gets much attention and that’s a pity since there is so little decent Pinot Noir in the country. This year, it surpasses itself with an elegant texture and flavors of blackberries and early-harvest red fruit. NIS 90

Lueria, Rosso 2011: An interesting surprise from this small family-owned winery in Upper Galilee. A very Italian wine ‏(based mainly on Sangiovese and Barbera‏), full of herbs and ripe fruit, which maintains a lightness of touch throughout drinking. NIS 90

Tulip, Syrah Reserve 2011: This is at the edge of the price category, but as a young and very interesting wine, I think it justifies itself. With a tantalizing aroma, a fresh fruitiness and lots of green notes, it opens up gradually into a complex and challenging wine. ‏(Worth allowing to breathe in the bottle for at least an hour before drinking.‏) NIS 100

The slightly fancy list

Recanati, Rose 2012: In the past, this wine’s sole merit was its bright color. This year, Recanati finally supplied the bright flavors of strawberry, peach and orange to go along with that color. NIS 65

Ella Valley, Sauvignon Blanc 2010: A very crisp and mineral-tasting wine with loads of citrus-peel acidity ‏(perhaps a bit too much toward the end‏), and still one of the most elegant white wines sold in Israel. NIS 70

Carmel, Single Vineyard, Kayoumi Riesling 2011: A semi-dry, elegant wine that succeeds in not being overly sweet, balancing well its floral perfume with a lemony sharpness. A versatile wine that realizes the wasted potential of Israeli Riesling. NIS 75

Flam Rose 2012: One of the best rose wines ever made here, entirely from Cabernet Franc grapes. Contains both pink freshness along with a deep taste of summer fruits. Is both the ultimate Israeli cooler and a good companion to any sort of meal. NIS 80

Adir, Chardonnay Ben Zimra 2012: There is so little Israeli Chardonnay worthy of praise that it’s worth searching for this small-quantity wine. With a great nose and perfect balances of minerals and acidity, it doesn’t lay heavy on the palate like most local Chardonnay. NIS 90

Bazelet Hagolan, Chardonnay 2011: Another limited-edition Chardonnay ‏(just 933 bottles‏), but the only one I feel justifies spending over NIS 100. With a slightly fleeting floral aroma and precise presence of citrus fruits and chalk. Bazelet is a small and high-quality winery that seldom receives attention. NIS 120

Recanati, Reserve, Cabernet Sauvignon Lebanon Vineyard 2010: To my taste, one of the best wines this winery has produced. A near-perfect use of an excellent vineyard. This is a complex and rich Cabernet, full of black fruit and smoke, which manages nonetheless to remain balanced and not bombastic.

Tzuba, Metsuda Syrah 2010: Tzuba is no longer a new winery, but it’s only now beginning to realize its potential. This Syrah has a deceptive, almost absent aroma, but upon tasting reveals itself as extremely pleasant, well-rounded and classic. NIS 110

Carmel, Single Vineyard, Kayoumi Shiraz 2009: This is the second representative of Carmel’s high-quality vineyard on the slopes of Mount Meron, which has been supplying wines of increasing character for some years now. The Shiraz is still a bit laid-back, but it harbors great promise of multiple layers of fruit, smoke and spice. A very satisfying and very Israeli wine, which manages not to be too full of itself. NIS 130

Yatir, Petit Verdot 2009: This austere, almost muscular wine, with its deep impenetrable purple color, is a brave and I think successful attempt to make a great wine from a variety of grape that is usually used locally for blending. In this case, it is a singular wine with “edges” of acid and flavor. NIS 130

Dalton, Cabernet Sauvignon Single Vineyard 2011: One of the best Israeli reds this year; proof that Dalton can provide VFM also at this price level. Like other fine vintages on this list, it also comes from Mount Meron, and has a very refined and elegant bouquet, nicely combining the flavors of wild mountain herbs with black fruits growing in the orchards. NIS 145

Amphorae, Makura 2008: It’s never easy recommending an Israeli wine at over NIS 200 ‏(unless it’s a Yarden Katzrin, Ya’ar Yatir or Margalit‏), as they are all so prone to disappointment. And yet, the Makura series of Amphorae is a well-planned attempt to produce wines at the highest level that justify the price. To my taste, the classic blend in the series ‏(Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc‏) is the only one that succeeds so far at doing that. It’s a long wine with good potential for years to come, with a clean and minty aroma, velvety texture, and smoky and spicy flavors melding together in an almost buttery finish. NIS 230